Academic journal article Ethnology

Politics, Gender, and Time in Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia

Academic journal article Ethnology

Politics, Gender, and Time in Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia

Article excerpt

This article interprets the symbolism and politics of Iatmul time (Sepik

River, Papua New Guinea). Social life is structured by different forms of

time (e.g., totemism, myth, Omaha terminologies, ritual). Furthermore,

mythic history is a mode of ritual politics. Finally, Iatmul time

symbolizes paradoxes of gender. The article concludes by comparing the

temporality and gender of Melanesian cosmology with the Aboriginal

dreamtime. (Time, politics, gender, Iatmul, MeLanesia, Aboriginal


Anthropologists since Durkheim have argued for the social generation of time (see Gell 1992: ch. 1). Evans-Pritchard's (1940) analysis of Nuer "structural time" is particularly striking. Not only did Evans-Pritchard argue for a determinant relationship between social organization and time, he implied that Nuer temporality was radically different from our own Western conceptions. This dual emphasis on social determination and cross-cultural variation has shaped the anthropological study of time with few exceptions (see Fabian 1983; Gell 1992).

Bourdieu (1977) and Munn (e.g., 1992) challenge the notion that time is simply a structure of social life that differs around the world. They focus on the phenomenological experience of time (see also Wagner 1986: ch. 5) and the use of time as a symbolic resource in the pursuit of social strategies. This article draws on their perspectives to analyze history and temporality in Tambunum, an Eastern Iatmul village along the middle Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.(1) I offer three related ethnographic and theoretical arguments.

First, the pace of social life is structured by multiple forms of history and time. Each temporal modality corresponds to a particular social context. Second, the society lacks a static and objective mode of history, particularly mythic history, because Eastern Iatmul often construct their past in accordance with contemporary politico-ritual strategies. Eastern Iatmul tend not to recollect the past for its own intrinsic value. To borrow from the language of Sahlins (1985), past "happenings" become historical "events" only when they are socially and politically relevant in the present. Likewise, "events" must fit into one or more culturally specific temporal frameworks. The third argument is that local concepts of time symbolize paradoxes of Iatmul gender and cosmology. If, along with Levi-Strauss, we understand culture to be unresolvable problems that arise from the imposition of order onto nature, then gendered time in the Sepik River is a symbolic response to the problem of a riverine environment that is locally phrased in a reproductive idiom.

In developing these themes, I begin with the relationship between totemism, mythic history, and contemporary politics. I next present data on spatiotemporality and narrative discontinuous time, followed by repetitive and cyclical time and a debate on the temporal dimensions of Omaha kinship terminologies. Subsequent sections analyze parallel history, chronology, ritual time, and gendered temporality. The article concludes with a comparison between Eastern Iatmul mythic history and the Aboriginal concept of the dreamtime. This, I believe, is the first attempt in the literature at comparing the temporal dimensions of these two cosmologies.


With a population of about 1,000, Tambunum is the largest Iatmul-speaking village. Patrilineal descent groups (clans, lineages, and branches) correspond to cosmological categories that are defined by hereditary totemic names (tsagi). These names encode a mode of history and temporality that is crucial for village social life (Bateson 1932, 1936; Harrison 1990; Wassmann 1991; Silverman 1996).

In what is one of the few uncontested elements of mythic history, the original state of the world was aquatic (Swadling 1989). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.